Regulators Issue Tough Net Neutrality Guidelines

But the Debate Is Unlikely to Wane Any Time Soon

This week, Berec, a group of European regulators for electronic communications, proposed strict new rules on Net neutrality that could have far-reaching repercussions on service providers and consumers.

Net neutrality is a thorny and controversial topic that radically divides opinion. The huge number of responses to a consultation held by Berec — 481,547 to be exact — demonstrates the depth of feeling among stakeholders. Clearly, this poses a major challenge for authorities seeking to strike a fair balance.

Undoubtedly, the guidelines will be welcomed by advocates of the open Internet and smaller service providers that don’t have deep enough pockets to pay for preferential delivery of Web traffic. Many of them have long campaigned for a “level-playing field” and protection of fair competition.

However, guaranteeing quality of services offers an opportunity for network operators to boost stagnant revenue from companies prepared to pay extra. Now, only a small number of “specialised services”, such as video feeds used in remote surgery, can be subject to preferential treatment, as long as it’s not detrimental to others. Berec’s rules could once again fan the flames of protestations that European telecom regulation is too harsh, hinders growth and discourages investment.

One of the more interesting aspects of the proposals surrounds the concept of zero-rating content. A number of European operators have recently made moves into this area, including Eir (Ireland) and Telia (Sweden). Their rationale has been to boost loyalty and encourage customers to take out higher-priced subscriptions. These operators will need to carefully monitor whether their approach could violate local or EU rulings. They also need to beware of a potential backlash from Net neutrality advocates, which could stir a wave of negative publicity.

However, operators will welcome clarification that, under the guidelines, 5G services using network slicing — the concept of creating separate segments for different application scenarios — could be classified as a specialised service. This was previously an ambiguous topic that some operators said created significant uncertainty over return on investment, which could hinder 5G roll-out.

Interpretation of the guidelines will likely vary by market, meaning that local regulators could still adopt different positions. In the long term, Ofcom may elect to implement its own legislation following the UK’s vote to leave the EU. However, it’s unlikely that this would differ significantly given that Ofcom is a member of Berec and contributed to the consultation.

Nonetheless, controversy and debate about this most divisive of subjects is unlikely to wane any time soon.